Could London’s empty homes provide a roof for the Grenfell fire victims?

There are 20,000 long-term empty homes in London. Could some be requisitioned for those made homeless by the Grenfell Tower disaster?

The east London collective Focus E15, a campaign launched by a group of homeless single mothers who briefly occupied a vacant housing estate, have a memorable slogan about empty homes in their area.

“These homes need people…These people need homes.”

On the other side of the city, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, hundreds of distraught tenants are still very much in need of homes.

The surviving victims of the Grenfell Tower fire have been met with an overwhelming outpouring of public sympathy and several funds have been set to help meet their immediate financial needs. And yet they have not found it easy to be rehoused in their neighbourhood.

The council, who owned the ruined block run by a separate tenants management organisation (TMO), has faced intense criticism for its failure to adjust to the scale the crisis.

By several accounts, housing managers carried on with a “computer says no,” business-as-usual approach to their waiting list. One victim reported homes had been offered as far away as Lancashire.

Neighbouring boroughs like Ealing were forced to step in and begin sorting out accommodation. And the Corporation of London brokered a striking deal with developer Berkeley and M&G Real Estate to provide 68 flats for Grenfell survivors at the huge, newly-built “luxury” Kensington Row development.

It showed big things are possible when people understand the urgency of need.

Sadly, thousands more tenants might need to be rehoused, at least temporarily, while safety improvements are made. The government announced that 600 tower blocks used similar cladding to Grenfell Tower, cladding revealed by tests to be dangerously combustible.

So far, almost 100 buildings have been checked and 100% of those have failed to meet safety standards.

Camden Council has already begun the process of removing cladding on its Chalcots estate, forced to urge hundreds of tenants to leave their homes at short notice (though some have remained in their flats this week).

The potential for the number of people in need of emergency accommodation to grow over the summer makes the task of utilising all the decent housing we have all the more urgent.

Many have pointed to the large number of properties lying empty across North Kensington’s wealthier streets and enclaves, asking whether more might be done to make use of them.

In fact, the most up-to-date figures show there are 1,399 long-term empty dwellings in the borough (empty for six months or more), among the 20,000 long-term empties across London.

It can’t be acceptable that in London we have luxury buildings left empty…while the homeless and the poor look for somewhere to live

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn led calls for some of these empty homes to be “requisitioned” and given over to house displaced Grenfell residents. Although one appalled, anonymous government minister referred to Corbyn’s idea as “encouraging insurrection,” a YouGov poll showed 59% supported the principle of the idea.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn launches the party's manifesto ahead of the 2017 general election.

“The ward where this fire took place is, I think, the poorest ward in the whole country and properties must be found – requisitioned if necessary – to make sure those residents do get re-housed locally,” said Corbyn.

“It can’t be acceptable that in London we have luxury buildings and luxury flats left empty as land banking for the future while the homeless and the poor look for somewhere to live. We have to address these issues.”

When asked if he would “seize (a property) forever, or just take it for as long as they’re needed,” Corbyn explained: “Occupy, compulsory purchase it, requisition it, there’s a lot of things you can do.”

So what can be done to make use of empty homes in Kensington, across London and further afield?

The Big Issue’s Fill Em’ Up campaign has explored various ways to restore empty buildings as a way of increasing the nation’s housing supply.

We have urged central government and local authorities to address Britain’s chronic housing shortage by incentivizing private owners to stop wasting their property, and by exploring new ways to refurbish derelict buildings under their control.

While many empty properties are second, third or fourth homes privately owned by people hoping for their value to increase before selling, some empty homes are the product of failed or stalled regeneration schemes.

Some forward-thinking local authorities have worked with social enterprises and community land trusts (CLTs) to bring derelict buildings back into use.

These small organisations have great potential to do more. If a CLT can obtain land or secure a long-term lease on a site, it can dictate the terms of the rent or insist on certain sale conditions for refurbished homes. It allows the trust to make sure the asset is affordable for future residents.

Below: Granby Four Streets homes, saved and restored by the community.

The Greater London Authority, as public landowner of a derelict hospital Mile End Road, allowed the London CLT to make 23 homes available to those struggling to buy as part of a huge restoration project.

And in Liverpool, the Granby Four Streets CLT has been able to restore, sell and rent properties on a set of terraced streets once boarded-up and earmarked for demolition by the council.

Occupy, compulsory purchase it, requisition it, there’s a lot of things you can do

What can be done with privately-owned empties? What of Corbyn’s call to “requisition”?

Although public bodies have been able to use compulsory purchase order (CPO) powers to force homeowners to sell up in many regeneration projects, government has not use emergency powers to seize properties since World War II.

At any rate, using CPOs to force people to sell prime London properties would be extremely expensive.

Some local authorities have already have tightened up council tax rules to discourage waste. In England, councils are now allowed to charge 50% extra council tax on properties left empty for two years or more. In Scotland, councils are able to double council tax on properties left for only one year or more.

For London’s super-rich, it hasn’t acted as much of an incentive. It would be easy to into introduce legislation to increase the penalties and make leaving a property empty hurt more, financially speaking.

But getting serious about the “buy to leave” phenomenon in the capital will probably require a more serious look at overseas ownership and offshore ownership in particular.

Such thorny, complex tax issues may have seemed too difficult for government to tackle and force reform.

But the anger felt in the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster is not likely to dim anytime soon. It has already left the government badly shaken. And it still has the power to shake up every aspect of Britain’s woeful housing inequity.

HOMES GOING TO WASTE: THE FACTS
  • There are 1,399 long-term empty dwellings in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, also home to Grenfell Tower.
  • There are almost 20,000 long-term empty properties in London, worth an estimated total of £9.4 billion.
  • There are around 200,000 long-term empty properties across England, worth an estimated total of £43 billion.